In a single decade, social media platforms have grown from occupying a small niche on the Internet to dominating the world’s discourse. It wouldn’t surprise me if, ten years from now, the 2010s would be labeled as the decade of social media. Almost every person with independent access to the Internet is likely to have engaged with some form of social media.
But contemporary social media platforms are no longer just a place for people to hang out. Instead, these platforms dominate news, politics, and have become the playing ground of big and small companies for advertising. This, along with the misuse of user data and infringements on data privacy, has led to significant amounts of justified criticism and government scrutiny.
This poses the question: what does the future of social media hold? Rephrased: now that we know what’s possible on the Internet, where can people go to hang out and have fun? The answer lies in what is now seen as an obscure niche, but might well become the future of social media: social VR.
What is Social VR?
VR has many useful applications: In this magazine, we’ve talked about VR for healthcare, for real estate, for manufacturing, and so on… Of course, VR is mostly known for its ability to fully immerse gamers into a virtual world. But what if those games aren’t actually games, but just places where people can hang out and talk? After all, the social aspect of gaming has become an integral part of a game.
Kids don’t just play Playerunknown Battlegrounds. They also hang out in PUBG chatrooms to talk with their friends. And thousands of gamers don’t actively play World of Warcraft, but walk around in their Guild Halls to meet and connect with other gamers instead.
Social VR gives gamers the experience to meet other people and talk to them in virtual reality. Gamers can choose or create an avatar, hook up their VR headsets, and walk around in either a developer-created world or a world that users created themselves.
The most popular social VR game today is VRChat. Although it’s yet to be officially released, you can already download and play the game for free on Steam and the Oculus Store. It supports the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows MR headsets, but if you don’t have a VR headset, you can play it in desktop mode too.
It’s hard not to marvel at VRChat and how it can draw you into a virtual world. Its full-body avatars support lip sync, eye tracking and blinking, and a complete range of motion. Players can express themselves by gesturing with their hands and pointing with their fingers, as well as through a vast range of emotes and emojis. 3D spatialized audio helps determine where sound and speech is coming from.
The game averages thousands of players a month; there’s never a shortage of players to meet. VRChat became such a huge hit because popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers started playing the game. Unique about VRChat is that players can create their own avatars and their own worlds. As of today, the community has created over 50,000 unique worlds, from Japanese temples to weird, Mickey Mouse torture chambers.
Which leads me to my next point: VRChat is weird. It feels like the Internet of the 90s. It’s rough, glitchy, and chaotic. To give you an idea of how weird and chaotic almost every moment in VRChat is, just watch this video (warning: plenty of cursing):
As you can see, there are plenty of anime characters and an enormous amount of avatars that portray themselves as popular characters or well-known Internet memes. It’s the Internet culture visualized. People can express themselves without inhibitions, which leads to an endless amount of chaos and creativity.
But giving players this amount of freedom also has its downsides. Harassment, racial slurs, pornography, and cursing are unfortunately a common occurrence in VRChat. However, the developer team is addressing these problems by implementing game mechanics that allow you to mute, block, and ban players who misuse their creative freedom.
Another popular social VR game is AltSpaceVR. The game was the biggest social VR platform a few years ago, until it ran out of funding and was nearly shut down. Microsoft came to the rescue and acquired the game, allowing it to continue running and eventually thrive too.
Different from VRChat, AltSpaceVR seems to be a somewhat more civilized social VR platform. It has hosted celebrities such as comedian/musician Reggie Watts, actor/comedian Drew Carey, and science personality Bill Nye, who were given the opportunity to perform for or talk to an audience in VR.AltSpaceVR also partnered with NBC News to host live events during the 2016 presidential election.
The Future of Social VR
Playing VRChat or AltSpaceVR today might not convince you that this is the future of social media.
But all big new trends have to start somewhere. The initial success of VRChat and AltSpaceVR show that there’s potential for this to grow much bigger. There’s a good chance that virtual performances from comedians and artists will become much more commonplace, and might even become an interesting new revenue stream for individuals and companies alike.
That’s not where it ends. Activities that were previously considered impossible to do virtually, are now being doing virtually. For example, because VRChat has full body tracking, pole dancers have been drawn to the game. People hold yoga and meditation sessions there, too. And artists can create paintings and artwork in social VR too.
Additionally, Microsoft’s acquisition of AltSpaceVR shows the interest of big tech companies in social VR. And it’s not just Microsoft that’s in on it. Facebook also has its own social VR platform called Facebook Spaces. But Spaces hasn’t really taken off, which can in part be explained by Facebook’s 2018 political backlash. Instead, Facebook sometimes uses Spaces as an internal tool, to hold transnational meetings.
Many people spend at least an hour a day on social media. Currently, this is done by looking at your mobile or computer screen. It’s not too far-fetched a thought to believe that, in the near future, we’ll pull a VR headset over our head to connect with other people around the world.
Thinking even further, a lot more of today’s physical world could move to VR. Most office workers spend the majority of their time looking at a screen. Additionally, more and more people work remotely. Why couldn’t VR replace screens eventually? You log in at work through virtual reality, as do your colleagues. Meetings are held in VR, you type emails in VR, you program in VR, etc… The technology is here for this to become a possibility, and social VR gives us a taste of what’s coming.
It might sound weird, but when has the future not turned out weird?